Écririons

Why Authors Need Harsh Critiques

Last night, I sent my newly revised first chapter of the manuscript I intend to submit to agents and publishing houses in January, to my harshest critic. I’m not-so-eagerly awaiting her feedback.
“My harshest critic.”
That just sounds terrible, doesn’t it?
In truth, my harshest critic has been my BFF for almost twenty years. We raised our children together, held each other together during divorces, lived together, and been “that person” who was always there, no matter what, for each other. She loves me to her core, just as I love her.
editsShe also believes that deep down inside of me is an awe-inspiring author. She chastised me several years ago for not working in the writing field somehow (I do now). When I sent her my already published short story, she sent it back ripped to shreds, with notes for revisions and pointing out weak spots. She’s not a professional editor, but she’s a great beta reader.
And because she loves me, believes in me, and knows what I’m capable of, she’s harsh. She tells me if a line of dialog works, if a scene is implausible, if I’ve left a plot hole wide open. She tells me if she loves my characters, or if she thinks they’re utter crap-and why. In short, I need her criticisms.
The already published short story that I sent her had been through three beta readers and a professional editor. While I fault none of them in the process, I’m the type of person who doesn’t take hints. I need beta readers and editors who spell it out and tell me exactly where I need to improve. Now, don’t get me wrong; my editor for my short was great, and I’m thankful I went through my first professional editing experience with her. She was exactly what I needed for a first editing experience because she helped me through the experience and made me realize that I need someone who, like she did, challenges me to improve.
If I have an editor that tries to be gentle with me, I’m never going to get to the point where I feel compelled to make it better. It’s only when challenged that I really shine. I’ve always been this way. I work best under deadline, and with someone pushing my buttons. My BFF does that for me.
As a creative herself (she’s a brilliant photographer), she understands that I need someone to challenge me to be better. As my best friend, who’s not afraid to hurt my feelings when necessary. She also knows how far she can push me before I become defensive (at which point, nothing she says is going to register).
So, when she sends me back a ripped up chapter later this weekend, how am I going to cope?
First, I need to realize that I’m emotionally connected to what I’ve put down on paper. That means it’s okay to let my feelings be hurt if she thinks my words aren’t as good as they could be. So if I need time to mourn, then I’m going to take that time to be upset. I may even let rum come by and help me feel better. Rum may or may not be joined by his buddy brownies or chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.
I’m also going to communicate. If she’s ripped something to shreds and I don’t understand why, I need to ask her. “What didn’t you like about that section?” is a crucial question to ask of someone who is critiquing your work.
I need to find something good. Usually, my BFF does that. Even in our conversation last night, after she’d done a quick initial read, she told me something she enjoyed. That lets me know she doesn’t think I wrote total shit, even when she then said it was too long. It’s not, technically, but if she feels it’s too long, that means the story is dragging, and I need to fix that.

 

For many people, their best friend isn’t the best person to critique their writing. Usually, your best friend doesn’t want to hurt your feelings and critiquing should be a thorough look at your work, which can sometimes be a harsh process. But it’s important that you find a great person to critique your whatever it is you’re working on, because it will make you a better writer. And that, my friends, is what this entire journey is about.

Do I Really Need an Editor?

Is today your first time reading my posts here at Ecririons? To catch you up, prior to today we’ve talked about building your author brand, making the decision about whether or not to hire an agent, different types of publishing options, and the benefits of writing groups. Today, we’re going to talk about editors.

EditorUnlike the Agent Debate, there should be no question on hiring a professional editor. I’ve read books where the author chose not to take that extra step, and I could definitely tell. Most readers, and some authors, have no idea how much a great editor adds to a book; not having one can make you look like a really bad writer, and that’s going to have an impact on your future sales. Generally, that step is skipped because it’s an expensive one, and I’m going to agree with you. A complete edit can be spendy, especially of a full length novel. That’s one of the reasons that the team model of publishing is so attractive so to many authors. I’m going to put it out here right now, though. Diana Gabaldon, Anne Rice, and George R.R. Martin all have editors. And they wouldn’t dream of publishing a book without the support of an amazing editor.

And editor does much more than just points out typos. An editor challenges you, asks you if you can make it better, and then, demands that you make it still, better. An editor tells you when the sex scene you’ve written couldn’t happen in real life (ask me how I know that!). An editor tells you when no one believes that your shifter is also a billionaire stepbrother. An editor tells you that the chapter that you wrote, that you thought was absolutely brilliant, is actually utter crap; and then an editor helps you write a chapter that is absolutely brilliant.

Of course, finding a great editor can be difficult in and of itself. Anyone can claim to be an editor. There’s not some guild somewhere, handing out certified letters of editing ability. I do a lot of web content editing, but I couldn’t tell you if you’re using an appropriate dialogue tag. So, the first thing you need to determine is what type of editing you’ll need. If you’re going to be self publishing, you want a full on developmental edit. A developmental edit is where the editor dives deep into your work, and makes sure that it, well, works. He or she is going to examine it closely, looking not just at dialogue tags, but at the overall work.

If you’re planning to submit to an agent or publishing house, at the very least, you’ll want a copy edit. This is the edit where a professional goes through and checks all of the copy issues: grammar, typos, misspelling, and those pesky dialogue tags. While your story should be well developed, I wouldn’t invest in a developmental editor at this point, as a publishing house may want to develop things to their own standards. It may seem a bit silly to hire an editor for a manuscript you’re just going to have edited at a publishing house anyway, but I would hate to have my manuscript set aside because I read when I wanted to lead and I didn’t catch it when I proofread it myself.

But how does one go about finding a great editor in a sea of less-than-great ones?

First, don’t be afraid to ask for credentials. While they may not be laid out on their website, they should be willing to send a .pdf that lists their education and qualifications for holding an editing position. There are organizations that certify editors. If someone’s only qualification is that they’ve edited a few books, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be bad at it, but I would think that you would need to spend extra time with them before deciding to hire them. I certainly would expect to pay more for an editor who held a college degree or advanced certification. Editing, like writing, can be learned, and everyone has to start somewhere, but if you feel the least bit iffy, choose to spend your money elsewhere. Many editors begin working on freelance platforms while they’re completing certifications. Look at the sum total of their credentials and make sure they have some kind of relevant experience.

Many vanity presses will have editors on staff. You may be able to contract with them just for editing services. Take a look at some of the other books that the vanity press has published; if you see a lot of reviews noting a lack of editing, then avoid working with that organization.

Most editors will offer you a free sample edit. This is to make sure that the two of you work well together. Some people need an editor that holds your hand. Some folks need an editor who is ruthless in her drive to make you a better author, even if that means you need to buy a case of wine when you’re done reading her first pass email. Some folks need someone who is a combination of the two. A sample edit gives you the opportunity to find out if her style inspires you, or makes you hate her. Find one who inspires you, pushes you, and maybe even makes you hate her once in awhile, but who you know will make you a better writer.

Finally, read your contract carefully. A friend of mine who signed with a smaller publishing house was surprised to find that editing was not included in her contract. When you sign with an editor, make sure that the contract specifies delivery dates; if you have a launch party scheduled and don’t have your manuscript back then, it would be bad to have to move it. If you have a pre-order scheduled through Amazon, and you can’t deliver on time because the editor hasn’t delivered by the date you agreed to, then you will lose access to pre-orders through Amazon for a year. While a contract isn’t a magic elixir for these types of problems, it does give you legal recourse if the editor fails to deliver (and gives the editor some as well).

I can tell you this for certain: while editing may be the most expensive part of self-publishing, it is never not worth the investment. Never. Not even “just this once.”

The Unbeaten Path-My Story of Becoming a Published Author

So you’ve been reading my posts for awhile now, but you may not really know that much about me. This week, I’ve decided that I’m going to tell a little bit of my story; plus, it’s really important to next week’s post.
The Unbeaten PathI’ve always been a writer. One of my earliest memories is of playing with the dolls in my dollhouse, and trying to figure out what one doll would say to the other. Words have always had power to me, and in all of their delicious beauty, I’ve found solace and healing as I’ve made my way through life. I wrote in high school; long, angst-filled prose about the sad state of humanity and more than a little bit about my teenage ideas about love. I was the editor of my high school’s literary magazine during my senior year, and it was then that I realized that some people thought it was hard to write. I competed in competitive speech throughout junior high and high school, not so much because I enjoyed standing up in front of a room full of strangers, but because it was one way to get my words to be digested by other people.
And then, at the oh-so-very-young age of nineteen, I became a mother. For a great many years, I spent most of my days in that fog of life that overtakes you when you become a mother. An endless cycle of cuddles and laundry and enjoying someone else’s firsts, and mourning those you miss. One day, it was almost twenty years later, and I had five children in various stages of growing up; no one had digested any of my words in a very long time.
So I started writing. I started with a personal blog at first and then decided that I didn’t want to be quite that personal. I revamped things a little bit and basically learned the business of blogging, which led, eventually, to my being able to open my own business as a copywriter. But I still had all of these stories in my head that were begging to be told. Wait! Let me rephrase that; begging is entirely too gentle of a word. Demanding to be told.
Despite having written best-selling non-fiction books for entrepreneurs, I had no idea where to start writing fiction. I knew nothing about the publishing business, and my biggest obstacle was pretty personal-I didn’t feel like I could justify the time that I would spend writing on a maybe. What if I wrote a book and it was terrible?
But on my fortieth birthday, I finally closed my eyes and jumped off the ledge I’d been so afraid to approach. I started making it a priority to find free time and started looking for a writing group so that I could be around more experienced writers, and learn just how things worked in the publishing business.
I found a great, supportive writing group over at 10 Minute Novelists. It’s a big group now, and has a few offshoots; when I joined it was small and full of people who were mainly like me-busy moms who could only spend a little bit of time each day writing, but who needed to write much as they needed to breathe. At 10 Minute Novelists, I met the group of women who would become the core group of the Writing Wenches, and I can honestly say that without the Wenches, I would not be a published author.
Since those early days when I first started writing again, I have learned a lifetime’s worth of things. I’ve worked for a publishing company and expanded my own company’s offerings to be able to help people to self-publish. I’ve learned how to hold a Facebook launch party and I’ve learned that I do still have what it takes to stand up in front of a group of people and give them the chance to digest my words. I’ve learned that I’m not a terrible writer, but that there is always room for improvement.
If I were asked to give someone one piece of advice, as a writer, my advice would be to start today. Even if you’re stuck in that cycle of cuddles and laundry and growing children, or some other cycle that makes it hard for you to find the time, start today. Make time. I’m eternally grateful that my fortieth birthday turned into a catalyst for me to get off my ass and go put words together in sentences. I can’t say that I’ve lived a life with no regrets, but I can say that I have one less regret, because I’ve followed my heart and made my passion a reality by becoming a writer.

Different Publishing Options

The decision to publish your book can be difficult. It means that you’re making yourself vulnerable, and putting yourself, and your imperfections, out there on the world’s stage, asking for judgment. It’s no wonder that you want to choose the right method of publication. Of course, that decision can be difficult with all of the choices available. Today, we’re going to take a look at several options, and the pros and cons of each.

Traditional Publishing House (AKA: The Big 5)

booksIn the days of yore, long, long ago, once upon a time (or, you know, before Amazon), if you wanted to get published, you found an agent and then the agent shopped your book around to one of the five publishing giants: Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hatchette, and Simon & Schuster. Your agent would find you a deal, you would get an advance, they would publish your book, throw you a book tour, pay for placement on bookstore shelves, and you would live happily ever after, or something like that. Today, even The Big 5 have much smaller marketing budgets, and the author has to bring a lot to the table to get signed. You generally still need an agent to get picked up by one of The Big 5, but there are a few situations where folks without agents have gotten signed. Also gone are the days of huge advances.

The pros to signing with a big publishing house are that you’re more likely to end up on bookstore shelves, and there’s a definite cachet to being signed. People respect that contract. It’s the standard by which many authors define success. You’re more likely to get future books published, and, if you do end up being the next J. K. Rowling, they’re going to sink a lot of money into marketing your future stuff.

The bad side to signing with a big publishing house is that in today’s market, it’s difficult to get an agent, and even harder to get a deal with a big publishing house. Marketing budgets have all but disappeared except for the most prominent writers, and you will probably have to agree to make certain concessions in your future books rather than focusing only on what you want to write.

Smaller Publishing House

Smaller publishing houses have been around forever, but with the internet and Amazon, we’re seeing an increase in the number of smaller publishing houses, as well as more visibility from them. Many focus on specific genres, which readers seem to love in the way that seventies housewives loved Harlequin books; readers knew that every Harlequin book was going to be a light romance, so they were getting exactly what they wanted.

The pros to signing with a smaller publishing house are that you usually don’t need an agent. Many have a submissions page on their website which spells out exactly how to submit your manuscript. Some even have particular things they’re looking for, and will put out open calls to fill those needs. It’s a great way to introduce yourself to your market. There’s generally some online marketing support, and often, the relationships between authors at the smaller houses are very supportive, with blog hops, mutual cross promotion and shared opportunities for public events.

The cons are that smaller publishing houses don’t have quite the pull of The Big 5. So you may not end up in a brick and mortar bookstore. They also won’t have as much marketing pull either. You’ll have to do a lot of your own marketing, setting up your own readings or public events, etc. If you’re going to submit to a smaller publishing house, make sure you do your homework. There have been a few examples of smaller publishing houses going out of business without paying authors or reverting rights back.

Hybrid Publishers

A hybrid publisher is a mix between traditional publishing and self-publishing. The largest hybrid publisher out there right now is Booktrope, and with their model, authors build a team of professionals, including an editor, cover designer, proofreader, and marketing manager. The team works together to bring a book to publication and get it sold, and each team member shares a percentage of the earnings.

The largest pro to going with a hybrid publisher is cost. Authors don’t pay up front for the services of an editor or cover designer. Hybrid publishers also tend to have a fairly tight knit author community that is eager to help cross promote and work together to coordinate events.

The cons to choosing a hybrid publisher include limited channels for distribution. There are zero efforts to get your book in stores, and in fact authors are discouraged from doing so at Booktrope, because of the return factor. Also, the team model can make or tank a book. New authors often don’t have the experience to vet an editor or marketing manager, assuming that anyone working with the company is a great asset. The company may feel that the team aspect of the model filters out bad team members, but that takes time, and can be detrimental to a book’s success.

Vanity Publishing

Vanity publishing is where your book is put out under a publishing house’s imprint, but you pay for all of the services such as editing or cover design.

The pros to vanity publishing include having a professional available to handle tasks like formatting and proofreading. Generally, a vanity press knows their way around the publishing block, and they can tell you how/when/why to do what you’re going. They can tell you that you need to use this font in this size to format for CreateSpace. They may or may not have a fan base of readers eager to read your book. Once you’ve vetted a vanity press, you can assume that they have, in turn, vetted their professionals, so it’s faster than finding your own editor, and then your own cover designer, etc.

The cons to vanity publishing include cost. Generally, you’re purchasing a package of services from a vanity press, and that package may include things you can do yourself. Also, you have to release on their timeline, which is controlled by when they have individual staff members available.

Self-Publishing

Self-publishing is the act of hiring out the individual steps of a book’s publication, or completing them yourself, from start to finish. Amazon has made it easier than ever to self-publish; in just a few hours, anyone can have a book available to be read on Kindle.

The main pro of self-publishing is control. You get the final choice of the cover; you get to choose which of the editor’s changes to incorporate, you get to choose your publication date, you get to choose how your book is marketing, and you get to choose what to write about next.

The primary con of self-publishing is cost. Hiring an editor, cover designer, and marketer are expensive. While there are some areas of this you can handle, there are some you cannot (please, for the love of all that is holy, hire an editor). Fair or not, books are judged by their covers and their typos. If you have a bad cover or your reviews mention that you have a lot of spelling or grammar issues, your sales will suffer. Marketing is time-consuming and sometimes hard. You may be an expert in your day job; unless your day job is marketing, you will probably find some aspects of trying actually to sell your book to be difficult. Another con is that the ease of self-publishing means that everyone can do it. And everyone is. There are some appalling self-published books out there, and, unfortunately, people use that to paint everyone who self-publishes with the same brush. They assume you self-published because you suck, not because you wanted to be in control of your project.

All-in-all, the decision of how to publish is yours unless you hire an agent; then you will need to work with them to determine the best method of publication. If you decide not to hire an agent, it’s important that you vet the publishing houses and author services you are looking at, using a forum like Absolute Write to find service providers who are trusted.

The Agent Debate

The agent debate is one that is hotly contested on author forums, in writing groups, and even occasionally on social media. There are those who are firm believers in the need for an agent, and there are those who will tell you that they landed a book deal with a major publishing company without one.

The Agent DebateThe quest to find an agent can take a long time. In fact, I once read a social media post where the poster had been querying agents for years. Multiple years. Read that again. Years. She had at least one manuscript completed, sitting around somewhere, waiting to be published. She was committed to going the traditional route of finding an agent and then having that agent get her a great deal at a Big 5 publishing house. So committed, in fact, that she had sent literally hundreds of query letters, trying to find an agent.

I’m not saying that this is wrong. Your path is, well, your path. What I’m saying is that it’s not for me. In five years, I could have either queried hundreds of agents, or I could have self published three novels. Maybe even five. When I first started on the path of being an author, I didn’t want to take five years to pick up an agent (and then at least another year to get a book deal, go through editing, and have a release). I’m forty-two, people. I’m not waiting five more years.

There is no study that I could find that asked people “How long did it take you to find an agent?” I’m guessing most folks give up after a few years; except those few who are committed to going the traditional route. I’m not sure if there’s a median time line for how long it takes, but, judging from the writing friends I have, that have gone looking for an agent, it’s a process.

In a quick, informal poll taken in one of my writing groups, those who responded all indicated it had taken them six to eighteen months to find an agent. On the other hand, my friend Katharine from 10 Minute Novelists went looking for an agent after she got an offer from a publishing house, and was able to find one pretty quickly.

Of course, none of this helps you make your own decision regarding The Agent Debate. I feel like I should be saying “Pop quiz, hot shot!” here because it is, indeed, a very hot debate and also because I like throwing in random quotes from nineties movies. What I’m going to do is present you with some pros and cons of having an agent versus not having one; hopefully then you can make the decision yourself.

Pros:

  • Having someone besides yourself fighting for your own best interests. It’s the agent’s job to get you an incredible deal, and pass on the ones that aren’t so hot. Would you know the difference?
  • Having someone to hold your hand and guide you through the process. This is a big deal for some people. You want the comfort of having someone there who can tell you “Yes, it’s normal to wait awhile for your edit to be complete.” when you’re waiting for that email to tell you how badly you screwed up on your manuscript. You probably didn’t screw up that badly, but I promise, that’s how you’ll feel when you’re waiting for your editor to email you. Having someone to tell you that, that is okay, is helpful.
  • Your agent will keep you focused. While you’re waiting for that edit to come back, your agent will be guiding you through the process of getting ready to market your book, or outlining your next manuscript, or whatever he or she feels would best suit you, your goals, and your style. Remember, an agent is looking out for your best interests.
  • Your agent will have contacts that will help you. Your agent has been an agent for awhile; if not, then they have at least worked in the publishing industry long enough to know a few people. They’re going to be able to help you book a reading at that great library a few hours away (road trip!), or help you get into that book fair or conference that will introduce you to a whole new group of potential readers.

Cons:

  • That whole time frame. While I feel that waiting for a few years (hey, write more, silly!) to find an agent isn’t so bad as long as you’re working the process often, building your author platform, and learning while you go, I think that five year is unreasonable. Not finding an agent doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. It may mean that you’re a bad query-er, or bad at choosing people to query for. Agents get hundreds of queries per day.
  • You have to pay an agent. They get a percentage of every book you sell, before you even see it. That’s kind of painful, especially in an era where author profits are declining. In How Much Should an E-book Cost, author and marketer Jude Knight says the average price for a Big 5 novel in e-book format is $9.53. If the average author is earning 25%, they’re earning $2.38 per book. If you have to give your agent 10% of that, your earnings are down to just $2.14 per book.
  • You have to listen to an agent. For some of us, this is difficult. We creatives tend to enjoy being in control of our creative muses. Having an agent telling us to get to work on the next book is kind of a pain in the rear end. Having written your first manuscript without the pressure of an agent pushing you to publish, you would love to be able to take that kind of time with your second. Unfortunately, building you up to a best selling author means that people need to be exposed to you multiple times, and there’s no better way to do that than with multiple books out there. We’ll talk about how to do that if you choose to indie publish, but, in reality, you need to be working that writing every day, any way. But having an agent makes it seem like it’s out of our control.

All in all, the decision about where you fall on The Agent Debate is all up to you. I’m not going to tell you that you’re wrong, no matter which way you choose to go. Anyone else who tries to tell you that you’ve made the right choice may not understand that you’ve done the research and the footwork before making such a decision. It’s one of the hardest decisions in publishing-and it all depends on what your overall goal is.

Next week, we’ll talk about the different kinds of publishing options that are available, so be ready to take notes!

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